Systematic widespread torture and starvation of prisoners held by the Syrian government has been documented by a team of forensic pathologists and confirmed by international legal experts using evidence provided through a former Syrian military official, according to a recent presentation held by France at the United Nations.
High-resolution images projected on a screen to the media began with a bloody mashed-up head and then skeletal individuals, followed by a corpse with a badly bruised upper body and about a dozen more photographs showing varying degrees of physical abuse.
The pictures have been studied by Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton, who is part of the forensic pathologist team and is based at the University of Leicester in Britain. Signs of starvation, Dr. Hamilton said at the media briefing, were notable in the extreme prominence of the collar bones and ribs of individuals, suggesting “severe wasting of the body” and “prolonged starvation” — six to eight weeks.
The Syrian military officer who took the photos was responsible for documenting corpses brought to a military hospital in the Damascus area from three local detention centers from September 2011 to August 2013. The naked bodies were taken to the hospital to be processed before their burial.
France arranged to show the evidence to its fellow members at the Security Council and to the press on April 15, along with the report, written by the international law experts: Desmond de Silva, a former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (which has finished its work); David M. Crane, the founding chief prosecutor for the Sierra Leone tribunal; and Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution in the international tribunal case against Slobodan Milosevic, the Balkan leader, for war crimes.
The report, which is not associated with the UN and is based solely on information from the Syrian officer, relies on 55,000 photos that are “believed to correspond to more than 11,000 corpses,” the French mission said.
The report coincides with a recent paper released by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, documenting systematic torture by the Syrian government on detainees and torture by some armed opposition groups.
Torture survivors interviewed by the UN and other human-rights entities, the paper said, “come from all walks of life, women and men, of varying ages, religious and ethnic backgrounds.” Many are activists, it said, and often students as well as lawyers, medical personnel and humanitarian workers, “and some who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The UN paper cited testimony from, among others, a 30-year-old engineer who described being detained by Syrian Air Force intelligence officers at a military airport in Damascus. During one interrogation, guards stripped him naked, except for a blindfold, and hanged him from his cuffed hands to a tube in the ceiling. A guard then pressed a metal object against the victim’s penis. Then, “what felt like a metal bar was inserted into the victim’s anus for a period of twenty minutes or so.” The victim was later transferred to a military hospital, where he received treatment for his wounds.
As for the de Silva report, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, said his country had presented it formally to the Security Council, of which France is a permanent member, to prompt a referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigations of atrocity crimes. It is unlikely that Russia will approve such a resolution, but pushing for a vote by the council could further isolate Russia’s standing in the UN, especially as the Ukraine crisis mounts.
A spokesman for Araud later said that France was proposing the resolution to the Security Council by the end of April.
The report had actually been released on Jan. 20 to certain media, right before the UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva between Syria and the opposition — negotiations that went nowhere.
The study was financed by Qatar, which has been shipping arms to Syrian rebels during the war — with some recipients believed to be hard-line Islamists. Qatar paid Carter-Ruck and Company, a law firm in London founded by Peter Carter-Ruck, a now-deceased libel specialist, to commission the report. The UN mission of Qatar would not say what its government paid for the report.
After its release in January, some media and political websites have debated the report’s veracity and partiality. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, questioned the validity of the forensic team examining only about 10 percent of the photos, and thought the report felt rushed.
The Syrian who recorded the images had been a crime-scene specialist in the military, but in 2011 his job morphed into photographing prisoners’ corpses for the hospital. For nearly two years, he apparently made two copies of each photo, storing one set in a flash drive and smuggling it into his shoes regularly, then sending the images to a person outside the country who, the report said, is part of the Syrian National Movement, an opposition group supported by Qatar. The person was related by marriage to the photographer.
As part of his strategy, the military official used a code name, Caesar, and he was a senior sergeant in the Syrian army before defecting. His job recording the bodies of rebels and dissidents was to document for the Syrian regime that its enemies had been killed and to produce death certificates as a matter of course.
The victims’ relatives were told that the dead had suffered heart attacks or died from breathing problems. Bodies were buried before relatives could view them.
In early January 2014, just about a week before the report was released, the legal team traveled to the Middle East to verify the credibility of Caesar. The team of scientists was also paid by Carter-Ruck to study the photos for their veracity and for what they revealed. Information on how much Qatar paid Carter-Ruck, which has represented Qatar in the past, was not made available by the Qatar mission to the UN.
“Caesar was credible; these photographs are for real; we began to work with the photographs,” Crane, one of the legal experts, said at the media briefing. (Crane is an American who worked in intelligence for the Department of Defense for many years and now teaches law at Syracuse University.)
Dr. Hamilton studied images of about 850 people and that he was “content that they were not digitally altered, not Photoshopped.” He said that even though he saw a minority of the photos, it was a relatively representative sample.
No children were photographed, and only one woman had been pictured, he added. The photos were not close up enough to reveal if the bodies had been sexually abused.
Most of the bodies were young to middle-aged men. One photo showed to the media revealed a corpse whose eyes had been gouged, prompting Dr. Hamilton to say that he had “not seen much like this in my career.”
Araud said that the presentation was “not a political gesture,” but meant to provoke the moral conscience of Security Council members to refer the crimes to the International Criminal Court, the world’s only permanent court that tries atrocity crimes. A referral is backed by at least 50 countries in the UN.
The council has been unable to take serious steps to resolve the Syrian civil war, as Russia and China, two of the five permanent members, have vetoed resolutions condemning the deadly role that the Syrian government has inflicted on its civilians.
Araud said the court, which needs a referral from the council to investigate because Syria is not a member of the court, should also prosecute atrocity crimes committed by opposing militias in Syria. But the presentation focused squarely on crimes allegedly committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
“All sides are committing international crimes,” Crane said. It has gone “well beyond good guy bad guy scenario.”
Besides Syria, the council is split in another profound way: it failed to pass a resolution on the Ukraine crisis that would have declared Crimea’s referendum to join Russia as illegal. As expected, Russia voted no to the proposal.
Another veto by Russia — to refer Syria to the court — could work favorably for France by enhancing its reputation on the world stage as its own president, Francois Hollande, suffers from low popularity domestically.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.